Wednesday, June 27, 2007
Night of the Baby Snatchers
African women scare me.
Forget the stereotype of the timid waif cowering in the corner as her brutish husband stalks their tiny shanty. The African women I know are fierce, protective, and confident. If you had an eye on world domination, these women would surely be your first recruits.
Rule of Thumb: The more elaborate the hairstyle, the more intimidating the woman. A short bob = pushover, braids are laid back, an Afro puff or Zulu knots could turn at any moment. But the woman I fear most wears her hair in stylish lacquered coils, perhaps piled high on her head, perhaps framing her face in glistening cascades. The hair bounces and gleams as she shouts, punctuating her most stinging remarks with a snap!
On Saturday night, T-Bone and I went to a birthday party. T-Bone's cousin Igga and her husband Werdna had a baby last year and this party was to celebrate little Nadea's first birthday. Let me reiterate. This party was to celebrate his first birthday.
Now it is customary at African celebrations for the men to gather together in one area and the women in another. By which I mean the men laze around drinking beer and laughing while the women cram into the kitchen, wiping their brows over hot buckets of food and brandishing big wooden spoons at their more disobedient children.
So when we arrived, I was not surprised to be greeted by several women and children, with no men in sight. After a round of hugs and hellos, T-Bone said, "Come, let us greet Werdna." He wisked me down the stairs and out into the backyard, where we discovered several men leaning back in their folding chairs, all holding the obligatory bottle of beer. In one corner an industrial-sized trash can stood filled to the brim with beer and ice. Several other coolers overflowed with wine coolers, soda and water. Six packs lined the wall of the house, ready for deployment should we need them. Werdna stood and greeted us, T-Bone grabbed a Guinness for himself and a wine cooler for me, and we both settled into folding chairs of our own.
Now, I know the rules, but it seems unfair to ask me to abandon the one person I really know and go perch myself in a room full of women who frequently stare at my white skin and on occasion point and giggle. So I hung out with the men for as long as I could before I started to feel like a third wheel but eventually I excused myself and went upstairs to check on the women.
Upstairs the air was oppressively hot. Eight or nine children, most under the age of four, were crammed into a living room the size of a large bathroom, and all of them were jumping, screaming, and running as much as space would allow. It seemed their favorite game was to gather at one end of the room, crouch down on the floor, and then tear off running toward the leather couch, leaping up and dancing on the cushions - with their shoes on.
As I sat down on a love seat, one of the older children wobbled up to me. "I wanna go outside," he whined.
"You do?" I said dumbly.
"I wanna go outside," he whined more loudly, pinching his penis for emphasis.
I couldn't blame him. I peeked out the window at the men. A cool breeze was rippling through the fabric of their clothes. Their rumbling talk swelled in laughter now and again and then receded. I stared at the trash can and longed for my own bucket of ice.
"I think that's an excellent idea," I told him. "But you'd better ask your mommy." I turned to his mommy and gave her an encouraging smile. She pointedly ignored me.
The other children quickly took up the call for liberation. The oldest boy started shouting, "Outside! Outside! Outside!" The younger children crawled up onto the couch and tapped on the window, casting forlorn looks in my direction. I did my best to encourage their release, saying things like, "What a beautiful day for children to play outside!" or, "Gee, I bet it wouldn't be so hot in here if the little ones went outside to play." All of this was as determinedly ignored as my first attempt.
"Hey you!" growled one mami to the rebellious older boy. "Go sit over there!" She flicked her hand toward the most remote corner of the couch. "Stop all this foolishness and quiet yourself." The boy immediately fell silent and shuffled to his assigned seat.
Apparently there is no "Wait until I tell your father" in Africa.
After taking just about as much as I could of the whining cacophony, I finally snuck back outside to sit with the men. After listening to them reminisce for awhile, I excused myself and called Nivek, who babysat me until it was time to cut the cake.
Just as I was hanging up with Nivek, all of the mamis crowded around the back door - strangely, none of them actually stepped out - and started calling to the men to come in because we were going to cut the cake. "Hey, you! You lazy men! Get in here, now! We are going to cut this baby's cake!" A few of the men's eyes flicked in the direction of the door but none of them even turned their heads, much less made any movement to stand.
I scowled at T-Bone and we both stood and trundled into the tiny family room. Children were squeezed in piles on each other's laps or stuffed down into couch cushions. Mamis lined one wall, their hips squashed together so tightly I feared one sharp twist might cause a rupture. "Hey Nadea, what do you think of that cake?!" they roared. Several preteens huddled in one corner, arms crossed and eyebrows arched. "Look, look at that cake!" the mamis howled. They gesticulated wildly, grabbing childrens' faces and forcing them in the direction of the cake. "Is that not pretty?" demanded one mami with beautiful frothy curls. She mashed her child's face between her palms and moved the baby's head up and down in a nod. "Yes, so pretty!" she murmured, satisfied.
Somebody brought in a yellow and green "1" candle. "Who has fire?" all the mamis shouted. "We need fire!" The few men in the room found their chests being pounded. "Do you not have matches?" The men shook their heads sheepishly. "No?! No matches? What about brickette?" they insisted, asking for a lighter. The men shrugged and shuffled their feet, looking at each other helplessly. "Ah! Useless men!" the mamis said, throwing up their hands.
One of the little girls began to whimper. "Sh-sh-sh," said one of the mamis, lifting the little girl into her arms.
"Here, what is this?" cried another, plucking the girl from the arms of the first woman. "Tears? Sh-sh-sh, it is okay," she soothed, stroking the girl's cheek . . .
. . . until she was snatched away by a third mami, this one cradling the child like a baby. "Hey now," she said sternly. "Why are you crying? Look." She swung the child around onto her hip and pointed to the cake. "Look, it is Nadea's birthday. Are we not happy?" And the child was passed around the room, hugged and cosseted for a minute before another woman swooped in and seized her.
The adults continued to accuse each other of incompetence and dimwittedness. They sought in vain for a match. Finally someone had the idea to light the candle using the kitchen's gas burner. A few minutes later, an oozing flaming mass of yellow and green wax was pressed with great ceremony into the middle of the cake.
"Look, Nadea, look! Look at your cake! Now is the time to blow out your candle!" all the mamis shouted. "Let us sing 'Happy Birthday!'" We began a rousing rendition of the birthday song. By the third word, little Nadea's lower lip was trembling. By "Happy Birthday, dear Nadea!" he was in full-blown howl. Several of the other children, overwhelmed by the adults shrieking and the little boy's cries, began to sob too. They were quickly scooped up and the mamis sang merrily in their ears, trying to encourage the children to join in the fun. As the song came to an end, the adults surveyed their weeping overwrought children. The oldest mami pursed her lips. "Hmm," she said after a moment. "It is possibly too loud in here."
The preteens rolled their eyes and hunched down deeper into their shoulders.
Someone brought out a cake knife, its handle inexplicably wrapped in tinfoil. "Here you go, baby!" she cried, waving the knife gaily. "Let's cut your cake!" They tried to offer the knife to Nadea but he wouldn't take it. "Come on, baby," they urged. "Time to cut your cake." His face dissolved into tears. His mother lifted him and patted him on the back. "Sh-sh-sh," she crooned. "It is okay. Sh-sh-sh-sh-sh." She rocked him back and forth for about thirty seconds, until he was hauled away by another mami and the cycle began again.
I caught T-Bone's eye across the room and he gave me the "Let's get out of here" look. I did my best to get through the crowds but it was hopeless. Two mamis collided as they tried to make way, mashing a little boy's head between their backsides. He hung there for a minute, his mouth making little guppie puckering motions, then the buttocks parted and he escaped. He looked around dazedly and began to cry. He too was quickly absorbed by the baby snatchers.
I shook my head and gave up. Slipping out of the screen door, I snuck out of the backyard and made my way around the townhouses until I got back to the front of their unit. Igga was just finishing up a plate of food for T-Bone to take with him. We wished Nadea a happy birthday, said our goodbyes and left. As we trudged to the car, T-Bone turned back to look at the lit house vibrating with noise.
He shook his head wistfully. "They have not even begun to roast the goat."